Yup’ik (Native Americans of the Arctic)

Yup’iktmp2093_thumb, "Real People." The Yup’ik people were formerly known as Nunivak Inuit (or Eskimo), St. Lawrence Island Eskimo, West Alaska Eskimo, South Alaska Eskimo, and Southwest Alaska Eskimo. They are also known as Bering Sea Yuit and, with the Alutiiq (Pacific Eskimo), simply as Yuit. The St. Lawrence Islanders were culturally similar to Siberian Eskimos.

Location Yup’ik territory was located in southwestern Alaska, between Bristol Bay and Norton Sound, including Nunivak and St. Lawrence Islands.

Population The early-nineteenth-century Yup’ik population was between about 15,000 and 18,000. It was approximately 18,000 in the early 1990s.

Language The people spoke the Yuk or Central Alaskan Yup’ik (including St. Lawrence Island or Central Siberian Yup’ik) branch of Yup’ik. With Inuit-Inupiaq (Inuktitut), Yup’ik, or Western Eskimo, constitutes the Eskimo division of the Eskaleut language family.

Historical Information

History People have lived on Nunivak Island since at least 150 B.C.E. They made pottery and used mainly stone tools. The mainland has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years, with cultural continuity since circa 300 B.C.E.

Most groups avoided direct contact with non-natives until Russian traders established trading posts in Yup’ik territory, generally in the early nineteenth century. The Russians exchanged clothing, metal tools, and beads for beaver pelts. The Inuit began spending more time trapping beaver and less time on subsistence activities, eventually becoming dependent on the posts even for food. In general, Russian Orthodox missionaries followed the early traders. Most Inuit had accepted Christianity by the 1860s.

This process was uneven throughout the region. St. Lawrence Island people first met non-natives in the 1850s, whereas people on the Yukon Delta did not do so until the late nineteenth century. About 1,000 people (roughly two-thirds of the total population) of St. Lawrence Island died in 1878 from a combination of natural causes combined with a high incidence of alcohol abuse. Nunivak Island was similarly insulated (contact occurred in 1821 but perhaps not again until 1874), in part owing to the shallowness of the surrounding sea. The first trading post, which included a reindeer herd, was established there in 1920; missionaries and schools dated from about the 1930s. The people experienced various epidemics throughout the early to mid-twentieth century.

Little changed with the sale of Alaska to the United States until the advent of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay in the 1880s. Moravian missionaries appeared on the Kuskokwim River in 1885; those of other sects soon followed. Like most missionary schools, theirs forbade children to speak their native language. In an effort to undermine the traditional lifestyle, the U.S. government introduced reindeer to the region around 1900.

In addition to commercial fishing, fox hunting for the fur trade plus the manufacture of baleen and carved ivory objects formed the basis of a local cash economy from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century. Nunivak Islanders experienced the full cash economy only after World War II. By then the people had incorporated under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The Bureau of Indian Affairs managed their reindeer herd.

The far north took on strategic importance during the Cold War, about the same time that mineral reserves became known and technologically possible to exploit. St. Lawrence Island became exposed to mainland life and tied to Alaska only after military installations were built there in the 1950s. Inuits generally found only unskilled menial labor. With radical diet changes, the adoption of a sedentary life, and the appearance of drugs and alcohol, health declined markedly. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was passed in 1971.

Children arrive for school in reindeer-drawn sleds. In an effort to undermine the traditional lifestyle, the U.S. government introduced reindeer to the region around 1900.

Children arrive for school in reindeer-drawn sleds. In an effort to undermine the traditional lifestyle, the U.S. government introduced reindeer to the region around 1900.

Religion Religious belief and practice were based on the conception of spirit entities found in nature and needing to be treated with respect. Most rituals focused on this belief, such as those that showed respect to an animal just killed. It was also the basis of most taboos as well as related objects and songs.

Souls were said to be reincarnated through naming. Spirits not yet reincarnated also needed to be treated with respect lest they cause harm. In some areas, secret, spirit-based knowledge, objects, and songs, all thought to bring success in hunting, were passed on from father to son. The people also believed in various nonhuman, nonanimal supernatural beings.

Male and female shamans (angakok) provided religious leadership by virtue of their connection with guardian spirits. They led group religious activities. They could also cure disease and see into the future. Illness was thought to be due to soul loss and/or the violation of taboos. Professional curing methods included interrogation about taboo adherence, trancelike communication with spirit helpers, extraction (such as sucking), and performance, including masked dances. Shamans were relatively powerful people, in part owing to their ability to use their spirit power to harm people.

The Messenger Feast, a major ceremony, included dancing and gift exchange between two villages. St. Lawrence Islanders held a spring whaling ceremony. When the successful crew returned, the umiak owner’s wife offered the whale a drink of water as a token of respect. Then followed another feast and a thanksgiving ceremony. Some groups held memorial feasts about a year following a death.

In general, Yup’iks living along the Bering Sea had their main ceremonial season in the winter and early spring. The festivities featured spirit masks and dances. The Bladder Feast was another important ceremony dedicated to respect for animals, in this case, seals. This festival also underscored the ritual sexual division in society.

Government Nuclear families were loosely organized into extended families or local groups associated with geographical areas (-miuts). Local groups on the mainland occasionally came together as perhaps seven small, fluid subgroups or bands. From north to south, they were Kuigpagmiut, Maarmiut, Kayaligmiut, Kukquqvagmiut, Kiatagmiut, Tuyuryarmiut, and Aglurmiut. Older men, with little formal authority and no power, led kashims (men’s houses) and kin groups (generally the same as villages on St. Lawrence Island). These leaders generally embodied Inuit values, such as generosity, and were also good hunters.

Customs The family was the most important economic and political unit. Descent was bilateral, except patrilineal on St. Lawrence Island. There, secret songs, ceremonies, house ownership, and hunting group membership were passed through patrilineal clans and lineages. Status was formally ranked within the kashim and depended on hunting and leadership skills.

People married simply by announcing their intentions, although infants were regularly betrothed. Men might have more than one wife, but most had only one. Divorce was easy to obtain. Both men and women remained respectful and distant toward their in-laws. Wife exchange was a part of certain defined male partnerships, such as mutual aid, "joking," and trade. Some of these relationships were inheritable. The alliance between the wife and the exchanged husband was considered as a kind of marriage. Formal female partnerships existed as well.

Infanticide was rare and usually practiced against females. Children were highly valued and loved, especially males. Adoption was common. Life-cycle events, such as berry picking and grass gathering by girls and seal killing by boys, were recognized by the community. Childbirth, girls’ puberty, and death were the occasions for special taboos.

The sick or aged were sometimes abandoned, especially in times of scarcity. Corpses were generally removed through an alternate exit (not the door) and left on the ground with certain grave goods. Along the Bering Sea, some groups placed their dead in painted wooden coffins and erected carved wooden memorial poles to keep their spirits at bay. The mourning period generally lasted four or five days, during which time activities, including hunting, were severely restricted.

Work was fairly gender specific. Women made food and clothing and cared for children; men provided fish and land animals. Use of the real name was generally avoided, perhaps for religious reasons. Tensions were relieved through games; duels of drums and songs, in which the competing people tried to outdo each other in parody; and some "joking" relationships. Ostracism and even death were reserved for the most serious cases of socially inappropriate behavior.

Dwellings The people created larger settlements in winter to take advantage of group subsistence activities. Villages ranged in size from just two to more than a dozen houses, plus one or more kashims and storehouses.

There were several kinds of dwellings throughout the area, depending on location. Houses were generally of the semiexcavated variety, roughly 12 to 15 feet by 15 feet and made of sod, grass, and/or bark over wooden posts and beams. They were mainly inhabited by related women and children. Some might have plank walls with benches placed along them. Entrance was via an anteroom connected to the main room by an underground tunnel. A hearth and cooking area stood at one end of the open main room and raised sleeping platforms were at the other end. Windows were often made of sewn fish skins.

The Yup'ik created larger settlements in winter to take advantage of group subsistence activities. Villages ranged in size from two to more than a dozen houses, plus storehouses, such as this storehouse in Togiak, Alaska (1909).

The Yup’ik created larger settlements in winter to take advantage of group subsistence activities. Villages ranged in size from two to more than a dozen houses, plus storehouses, such as this storehouse in Togiak, Alaska (1909).

Except on St. Lawrence Island, men worked, bathed, slept, and ate in larger houses, or kashims. Women delivered the food. Kashims were also used as ceremonial houses. Political decisions were made there as well. Most villages contained at least one. Some groups built cut-sod spring camp houses, about 100 square feet in size. Skin tents were generally the norm in summer. Other structures included drying racks and food caches.

Diet Yup’ik people were nomadic hunters with either a land or a sea orientation, although most people also exploited the region opposite their own. The most important game animals were seals, walrus (especially St. Lawrence and Nunivak Island), and whales. Men hunted seals at their breathing holes in winter. On Nunivak, men hunted them from kayaks in spring and with nets under shore ice in fall. Some groups also hunted caribou (especially away from the coast and major rivers and on Nunivak Island until about 1900) and moose, especially in fall.

Fish, especially salmon, trout, smelt, and whitefish, were the most important dietary item in many locations and were generally taken in all seasons but winter. Fish were especially important inland, with marine mammals more important on the coasts and islands. Shellfish was gathered where possible. Birds and fowl, such as ptarmigan, were speared or netted and their eggs gathered. Some groups were able to obtain berries, roots, and greens.

Key Technology Hunting equipment consisted of various harpoons, spears, bows and arrows, and bone arrowheads. Caribou were snared or shot with the bow and arrow. Birds were netted, snared, speared, or captured with bolas. Fish were caught with hooks, spears, stone weirs, and caribou-skin or willow-bark nets.

Most tools were fashioned from caribou antlers as well as stone, bone, and driftwood (on St. Lawrence and Nunivak Islands, many items were made from walrus parts). Men and women had their own specialty stone knives. People cooked in pottery pots and burned seal or walrus oil in saucer-shaped pottery lamps. They carved wooden trays, boxes, dishes, spoons, and other objects.

Various kinds of containers were made out of gut, wood, and clay. St. Lawrence Islanders often used baleen as a raw material. Some groups made twined and coiled baskets of grasses and birch bark. In fact, grass was used extensively for items such as mats, baskets, socks, and rope, although some cordage also came from beluga sinew. The ceremonial tambourine drum was made of seal gut stretched over a wooden frame.

Trade The Yup’ik engaged in a general coastal-interior interregional trade, including trade with Unangan and Northwest Coast peoples. St. Lawrence Island people traditionally traded and otherwise interacted with those from Siberia.

Notable Arts The people made finely carved wooden and ivory figurines. Men painted designs, especially of animals, on wooden objects. Women decorated clothing borders, baskets, and pottery items.

Transportation Men hunted from one- or two-person sealskin-covered kayaks. Umiaks were larger, skin-covered open boats; several men could hunt whales or walrus in these. They were also used for trade voyages. Wooden sleds were used for overland winter travel. Some interior groups also used canoes.

Dress Women made most clothing of caribou and sealskin. Yup’ik clothing tended to fit relatively loosely. Some groups used skins of other animals, such as marmot and muskrat, as well as bird and even fish skins. Most people wore long hooded parkas and inner shirts and pants. Women’s parkas were often shorter and featured front and rear flaps. Other items included sealskin (some groups used salmon skin) boots and mittens, skin or grass socks, fish-skin parkas and pants in summer, waterproof gut raincoats, and wooden snow goggles.

Men on St. Lawrence Island wore distinctive hairdos in which they shaved the tops of their heads but retained a circle of hair around the forehead. Women generally tattooed three lines on their chins. Personal ornaments included labrets and other items of walrus and bird parts.

War and Weapons The people regularly engaged in interregional raids. Victims were generally killed. Hunting equipment doubled as weapons of war.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Villages represented by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC) include Egegik (86 native residents; governed by the Egegik Village Council and a seven-member city council), Pilot Point (91 native residents; governed by the Pilot Point Village Council and a seven-member elected city council), Port Heiden (86 native residents; governed by the Port Heiden Village Council and a seven-member elected city council), and Ugashik (six native residents; governed by the Ugashik Traditional Village Council and a five-member elected city council). These villages are all members of the Lake and Peninsula Borough and are located on the east side of Bristol Bay on the Alaska Peninsula (Chignik area).

BBNC villages located in the western portion of Bristol Bay (Togiak area) include Manokotak (368 native residents; governed by the seven-member Manokotak Traditional Council and an eight-member city council), Togiak (535 native residents; governed by the seven-member Togiak Traditional Council as well as six city councilors and a mayor), and Twin Hills (61 native residents; governed by the five-member Twin Hills Village Council as well as a traditional elders’ council).

BBNC villages located in the Iliamna area include Igiugig (26 native residents; governed by the five-member elected Igiugig Tribal Council), Iliamna (62 native residents; governed by the five-member elected Iliamna Village Council), Kokhanok (137 native residents; governed by the five-member elected Kokhanok Village Council), Levelock (87 native residents; governed by the five-member elected Levelock Village Council), and Newhalen (151 native residents; governed by the seven-member elected Newhalen Tribal Council as well as a seven-member elected city council). All of these villages are also members of the Lake and Peninsula Borough. In addition, the villages of Nondalton and Pedro Bay are described in the Tanaina entry in Chapter 9.

BBNC villages in the Kvichak Bay area include King Salmon (108 native members; governed by the five-member elected King Salmon Village Council), Naknek (236 native residents; governed by the five-member Naknek Village Council), and South Naknek (108 native residents; governed by the five-member South Naknek Traditional Council). All of these villages are also members of the Bristol Bay Borough.

BBNC villages in the Nushagak Bay area include Aleknagik (154 native residents; governed by the seven-member Aleknagik Traditional Council and a seven-member city council), Clark’s Point (53 native residents; governed by the five-member Clark’s Point Traditional Council and a seven-member city council), Dillingham (1,125 native residents; governed by the five-member Dillingham Native Village Council and by an elected mayor and six city councilors), Ekuk (two native residents; governed by the three-member Ekuk Village Council), Ekwok (67 native residents; governed by the seven-member Ekwok Tribal Council and a seven-member city council), Koliganek (174 native residents; governed by the seven-member Koliganek Traditional Council), New Stuyahok (375 native residents; governed by the seven-member New Stuyahok Traditional Council and a seven-member city council), and Portage Creek (three native residents; governed by the three-member Portage Creek Village Council).

All BBNC village population figures are as of the early 1990s. Some villages have significant numbers of Alutiiq residents.

Regional population centers include Bethel, Dillingham, and St. Michael. The Association of Village Council Presidents (AVCP) is a regional nonprofit corporation representing 56 villages. Through it, some people hope to establish a regional tribal government.

On St. Lawrence Island there are three levels of local government: an IRA council, a state-mandated city council, and ANCSA village corporations.

Economy Commercial fishing is probably the most important single industry. Except in the Bristol Bay region, traditional subsistence activities remain very important. The people also do some muskrat and mink trapping in the Kuskokwim Delta region. Lake Iliamna has one of only two populations of freshwater seals in the world (the other is in Lake Baikal, Russia). Traditional crafts are an important industry on Nunivak Island. Many people depend on government payments. There is also some tourism, especially in the Nuchagak Bay area.

Legal Status Three ANCSA regional corporations serve Yup’ik territory: Bering Straits Corporation, Calista Corporation, and Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Nunivak Island is a national wildlife refuge in which local residents may carry out subsistence activities. Under ANCSA, St. Lawrence Island is owned by the native residents but managed by corporations.

Daily Life Bilingual education has been in force since the 1970s; most Yup’ik people still speak the native language. The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation serves the people’s health needs with culturally appropriate programs and care.

Some communities have been more severely disrupted and are consequently less cohesive than others. Most St. Lawrence Islanders had been converted to Christianity by the mid-twentieth century, although many of the old ideas still resonate for the people.

The issue of subsistence hunting rights remains very important to the Yup’ik. Chignik area villages share certain concerns, such as the decline of the local caribou herd, possibly owing to excess sport hunting, and the threat to subsistence activities of industrial development. Togiak area villages are pressing for permission from the state of Alaska to conduct a permanent annual walrus hunt on Round Island and for funds to maintain their reindeer herd. They are also trying to prevent desecration of ancient burial sites.

Local concerns in the Iliamna area include road improvement, bridge construction, and air links. Concerns in the Kvichak Bay area include the maintenance of subsistence fishing rights, the use and contamination cleanup of the former air force base site, the construction and management of a visitor center at Katmai National Park, and the decline of the local caribou herd. Issues in the Nushagak Bay area include the possible formation of a Nuchagak and Togiak area borough, land allotments within Wood-Tikchik State Park, and proper management of the local caribou herd.

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